“Do you mind working with men?” Nahed M. Taher recalls being asked before taking a job in 2002 as the only woman among 4,000 male employees at Saudi Arabia’s largest lender.
Today, Saudi-born Taher, 43, is the only woman in the Persian Gulf who runs a bank, Gulf One Investment Bank, which she also co-founded. The lender has financed construction of air terminals to serve pilgrims visiting the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, a desalination plant in Jeddah, and energy projects in Africa. First-half profit doubled this year, to $3.2 million.
Taher, who says investors have nicknamed her “Desert Rose” for her ability to tap capital from the arid region, says too few of her gender are willing to defy Saudi cultural norms. “Women should work harder to make their economy better, especially now when you have high unemployment and high poverty in such a rich country,” says Taher, sitting in her Jeddah office dressed in a black trouser suit with her head uncovered because there are no men present. “If you ask some women if they want to work, you’d be surprised. They don’t want to. Men need to open doors, but things have to start from the woman herself.”
Mixed-gender offices are rare in Saudi Arabia, where women need permission from a close male relative to get an education, work, or travel. Last month women were granted the right to vote in some local elections, yet the leadership has refused to lift a ban on driving. While Gulf One is based in the more liberal nation of Bahrain, Taher prefers to work out of Jeddah. Taher, who earned a PhD in economics from Britain’s Lancaster University while bringing up three children, credits her parents for fostering her ambitions: “I have a very open-minded family that respects men and women as equal.”
Taher and Ziyad F. Omar, a former colleague, set up Gulf One in 2005 with $1 billion in capital. Major investors include Kuwait Investment, a unit of the emirate’s sovereign wealth fund; petrochemical company Saudi Basic Industries; and Saudi industrialist Hilal Hussein Saleh Tuwairqi. In 2007, the bank’s co-founders set a goal of raising $10 billion for infrastructure investments—a target they expect to hit by the end of next year. Taher says that she applies three criteria when considering which projects to back: whether they will make money, create jobs, and be environmentally friendly. “People are looking for ethical investment after the financial crisis,” she says. Gulf One recently launched a $100 million fund targeting small and medium-size enterprises in countries that include the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Bahrain.
The Saudi market is down about 7 percent this year, but once it improves Taher would like to sell shares to the public. She owns 2.7 percent of the bank. She also is searching for ways to advance the status of women. Nearly half of the bank’s 75 employees are female. Women in Saudi Arabia own 40 percent of real estate and have close to 20 billion rials ($5.3 billion) in deposits at local banks, Taher says. That’s capital they could put to work building businesses.
Taher, who years ago turned down a job offer from the International Monetary Fund because she wanted to return to Saudi Arabia, is well aware that she is an oddity—and not just at home. “Even if you go to the U.K., it’s difficult to find a female CEO of a bank,” she notes. “It’s not just rare in Saudi. It’s globally.”